Stock Options – Non-Qualified Stock Options and Incentive Stock Options

Stock options and stock ownership plans are a popular and effective method of incentivizing employees, often at a low cost to both the employer and the employee.  Several types exist, including non-qualified stock options, incentive stock options, employee stock ownership plans, phantom stock, stock appreciation rights and more.  In this first of a series of blog posts, we will look at non-qualified stock options and incentive stock options.

An employee stock option is a contract issued by an employer to an employee to purchase a set amount of shares of company stock at a fixed price for a limited period of time. There are two broad classifications of stock options issued: non-qualified stock options (NSO) and incentive stock options (ISO).  NSOs are typically offered to non-executive employees and outside directors or consultants.  ISOs are reserved for employees, generally executives.  Tax treatment of the two differs as well.

Both plans operate under a vesting schedule.  The employer grants the shares on Day 1 Year 1 but may set a vesting schedule.  Many schedules are based on time: 20% vest at the end of Year 1, an additional 20% at the end of Year 2, etc.  Other vesting schedules are tied to milestones: 20% when sales have reach $15 million, or 20% when productivity reaches 75%.  Both types of vesting schedules need to be clearly documented and agreed to.

Under both plans, no taxes are due at the time of grant.  NSOs are taxed at the date of exercise.  The difference between the Fair Market Value (“FMV”) on the grant date and the FMV on the exercise date is taxed as ordinary income to the recipient and as expense to the company.

ISOs are not taxed when the options are exercised. When the securities are sold, they are taxed under capital gains rules.  If the securities are held for one year after the option exercise and two years after the date of grant, they qualify for long-term capital gain treatment.  If these two qualifications are not met, they are treated as non-qualified stock options and are taxed using ordinary income rates.

An attorney and a tax advisor should design the plan with your guidance to avoid any legal or tax consequences.

At JBV, we have valued many stock option plans, from ESOPs to NSOs to ISOs and more.  We are here to assist you with yours.